JACKSONBURG, W.Va. - Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts take note: if you enjoy the sprawling Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in Wetzel County, it may be time to find a new stomping ground.
The 13,590-acre site at the southern end of Wetzel County has been one of the area's top public hunting sites for years. It also is home to numerous trails that see frequent use from local residents.
What's of concern is that the Lewis Wetzel's latest tenants are energy companies seeking untapped pockets of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Currently, several companies are actively drilling on Lewis Wetzel property. These operations involve bringing in large pieces of equipment to clear the land before a drilling well can be on-site.
Natural gas drilling taking place inside the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in Wetzel County is causing some disruptions and concerns, according to West Virginia regulators.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources owns and controls the surface land at Lewis Wetzel, but the mineral rights of all but 400 acres are owned by private individuals. Once these mineral rights are leased, then that company has a right to access public land for the minerals.
"The mineral owners have the legal right to retrieve their minerals from the land," said Steven Rauch, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources District 1 biologist, who oversees the preserve. "We, the state, own the surface acres, but we only own about 400 of the mineral acres."
In West Virginia, there are many "split estates" in which the mineral rights owner is different from the surface property owner. In almost every case, those who own the minerals are allowed to do whatever they need to do to extract the gas. Rauch said the DNR is aware of concerns being expressed by those in Wetzel County.
"We are working closely with these companies to keep the disturbance to a minimum," Rauch said. "Most of them try to cooperate with us."
Public records show that Stone Energy and the Triad Hunter subsidiary of Magnum Hunter Resources are drilling in the area. Williams Energy, which is building $4.5 billion in natural gas processing infrastructure in Marshall County, is constructing pipelines through the preserve.
Although Rauch said 90-95 percent of the wildlife area has "not been impacted or only temporarily impacted," he said the equipment and the noise can have a negative impact on hunters.
"They limit the work the best they can during turkey season and deer season," Rauch said of the gas drillers. "When they are working, those sections are closed off to the hunters as a safety precaution."
A Wetzel County resident, who asked to remain anonymous, has been very concerned about what he terms "destruction taking place at Lewis Wetzel."
However, Rauch said, "It is not being destroyed. These are primarily temporary problems."
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas is the agency charged with overseeing permitting for natural gas and oil wells within the state. The DEP is a cabinet-level position in West Virginia, as Secretary Randy Huffman reports directly to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The Division of Natural Resources, on the other hand, falls under the auspices of state Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette. The Commerce Department also oversees the West Virginia Development Office and other agencies.
"There have been some problems in the past associated with the activities on this property," DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said regarding Lewis Wetzel, referring to regulatory matters. "The DEP has issued several notices of violation, which required the companies to repair some slips, install silt fencing to manage sediment and erosion, and take samples in the nearby stream.
"We have taken representatives of the DNR along on site visits during the various stages of the drilling, including the reclamation phases."
There have also been concerns about pipelines running through the area, but Cosco emphasized companies do not need DEP permits to construct pipelines.
"Our regulations mainly address natural gas leaking from pipelines and notification requirements when pipelines are located in mining areas," Cosco said.
Rauch said while the impact to Lewis Wetzel has been relatively minor to this point, there could be more activity if additional gas companies lease and drill in the area.
"We will work with all of them as best we can. We have a very popular area here, and we will work to preserve it," he said.